Reading Nietzsche on Politics following the Way he read the Pre-Socratics

Something that caught my eye while reading Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks (Translated by Ladislaus Lüb, Edited by Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehemas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


Notebook 19 [192]

The political meaning of the early Greek philosophers must be demonstrated as well as their power of metaphor.

Der politische Sinn der älteren griechischen Philosophen, ebenso nachzuweisen als ihre Kraft zur Metapher.


Clearly a reference to the pre-Socratics.  Nietzsche has various brief things say about them in the notebooks up to Empedocles, who was a contemporary of Socrates though he is labelled Pre-Socratic, and was a friend of Pericles, the famous leader of Athenian democracy.     Nietzsche makes much of Empedocles’ friendship with the great democrat.  One frequent reaction to discussion of Nietzsche as a political thinker is to say that he nothing coherent to say about politics, just scattered remarks, and that therefore he cannot be discussed as a political thinker.  The ultimate expression of this is in Thamsin Shaw’s 2007 book, Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism  (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press).  This is a good book, and one which achieves the feat of being a book about why there should not be books about Nietzsche as political theorist.  Shaw does not put it quite like that, but the book does explain at length why Nietzsche is someone who is sceptical about politics, and by extension political theory, in a way which builds on the sceptical aspects of Nietzsche’s views on knowledge.  In that case we are attributing a theory of politics of some kind to Nietzsche, but then also undermining the understanding of his politics by making scepticism and fragmentation and dominant features of what he has to say about politics. On that basis we might end up saying that Nietzsche has not stable or systematic position about anything, turning him a sceptic of the most extreme stripe all round.  

But Nietzsche, himself, as we see in the quotation above, directs us to read politics into writers at the beginning of the philosophical tradition, like Heraclitus and Parmenides, who have little to say about politics.  The point I presume Nietzsche is making here is that the questions of the order of nature which is the main subject matter for the Pre-Socratics, is a way of dealing with what binds a society.  He mentions both metaphor and politics in the same sentence quoted above.  They are mentioned separately, but contiguously, so surely there is a hint that metaphor is important in reading philosophical texts.  And surely, the more direct and the more indirect aspects of the sentence all apply to Nietzsche’s own philosophical writing.  In that case we should be looking at the politically relevant bits of Nietzsche’s writing as more than an expression of scepticism, or we should see Nietzsche as an example simply of the most resolute form of scepticism on every question.  The first option is preferable, though with due deference to Nietzsche’s wish to avoid creating pure systems which are expressions of metaphysical structure.  

Metaphor and politics in the text of Nietzsche’s philosophy.


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